Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Prophetic Mary Currency

John 12:1-8
Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. 2There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him. 3Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. 4But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, 5“Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?” 6(He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.) 7Jesus said, “Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. 8You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.”

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, on average, Americans spend $8,003 per year on their cars - buying them, maintaining them, filling them with gas.  According to the American Research Group, Americans spend, again on average, somewhere between $800-900 on Christmas presents each year. Weddings, on the other hand, average around $27,021, according to Reuters. And according to the CNN money calculator, I’m going to need 2.7 million dollars in order to retire at the age of 70.  When my son is old enough to go to college, somehow Dan and I are going to have to find a way to cough up about $240,000 - that is, if he’s ok with going to a public/state funded school and graduating in 4 years.  And just to raise our two kids, not including college, it’s going to cost us about $400,000 (babycenter.com). And that’s just until they turn 18.  

How’s that for quantifying your life? For making it all about finances and figures and economic exchanges? How often does our stress and emotional and even our theological energy concerning our lives involve these financial calculations?  It’s as if we weren’t people, but rather dollar signs walking around, some of us “worth” more than others.

In the Gospel of John, we have some numbers to crunch as well.

In Cana, Jesus makes approximately 180 gallons of wine - way more than could ever be consumed by the wedding party in one night - even if it was Saint Patrick’s Day and they were partying on the South Side.
In Galilee, more than 5000 people are fed.  And there are 12 overflowing baskets of bread and fish left over.
After a night of catching nothing, Peter encounters the risen Christ and collects 153 fish in his nets.
Wine, bread, fish - this is what Jesus “spends” his capital on.

And here, in our passage today, we have a bottle of perfume “wasted” on a pair of tired, swollen, callused, grimy feet - perfume worth 300 denarri - about a year’s worth of wages.
Can you picture the mess of it?  The oil dripping from his feet onto the floor, The eye-opening, overwhelming smell of musk and earth and leather filling the house.  The sensual, almost sexual, symbolism of Mary’s long black hair wiping his feet clean.  This is almost too intimate to watch. Like we are interrupting a tender moment between lovers.  
This is strange currency indeed.
John’s Gospel presents us with a new currency.  Not one of practicality and dividends and sequesters and trade deficits, but a currency of extreme extravagance.  The Gospel of John shows us a budget in the red - of overindulgence - of waves and waves of “too much” - culminating in Jesus’ very life itself.

But in all of these examples of extreme extravagance, in all this fish and bread and wine and grace, there is only one time where the expenditures go in the opposite direction.  It is in this simple and yet scandalous act of Mary that we see an example of extravagance not going from God to us, but from one of us back to God. 
This time, Mary gives “too much.” Here, Mary is the one to respond with an outrageous love that is irrational, irresponsible, radical.  

Mary has poured what is likely her entire inheritance upon the feet of Jesus. She’s blown her endowment. She’s burned up her retirement.

Not only that, but she has poured her entire identity over him - an identity not of a Jewish woman with some element of social status, but as a servant, humbling herself to do what only servants would do - wipe the feet of the guests who come into the home.  

And she has poured her whole body upon him, kneeling before him, using her hair - said to be “a woman’s glory” - to wipe his feet. She has poured her reputation out in front of all of the guests watching her as she performs this physically and emotionally intimate, scandalous, vulnerable act for all to see.

Mary has rejected a calculus of reasonable currency, and has embraced the currency of God - the currency of ridiculous abandon, of illogical trust, the currency of a bottle of perfume poured upon tired, dirt-crusted, callused feet.

And Judas immediately jumps in to criticize, saying what I have often said in judgement about how others - individuals and organizations - use their money.  

I criticize them for poor choices - why invest in those homeless drunks who are going to spend their money on booze and gambling?  Why do they feed this jerk who left his last temporary housing situation because there were too many “blacks” living there?  Why do they give this woman yet another chance after she has returned to the halfway house past curfew and reeking of pot smoke?  Why expand food stamps and cash assistance to those who keep having babies for the sole reason of getting even more assistance? Whose idea was it to offer parenting classes to the parents who have a history of abusing their children? Why “waste” this money on perfume, or a family vacation, or the Deacons Dinner, when we could have given it to the poor?

We think in the currency of the kingdom of “us”.

But Jesus, thinking in the currency of the Kingdom of God, responds to Judas, saying, “leave her alone. It was intended that she should save this perfume for the day of my burial.”

“Leave her alone. It was intended that she should save this perfume for the day of my burial.”

A bunch of things are going on here in this simple statement.  
According to Jesus, Mary hasn’t squandered her perfume; she has saved it, for this exact moment.  
She is offering her whole self to Jesus.
And this offering is in preparation for Jesus’ burial.

But what gives?  Jesus isn’t dead yet.  How is this in preparation for his burial if he’s not dead?  Why rush to the sad ending?

I think that this is a prophetic offering.  She knows, at some level, what will happen to Jesus.  And strangely, she knows that this death is worth an entire bottle of pure nard, her entire inheritance, her entire self. Somehow she trusts that this ending that is the worst of all endings is worth it. She is prophesying.

So often, we think in “Judas currency.” We think of what is practical, what is logical, what makes sense to us in or particular situation, and what seems like the “safe” choice. We do this with our money, yes, but we also do this with our emotional, personal and relational investments.  
It is easier to write a check to the food bank than it is to volunteer a few hours on a Saturday and actually look someone in the eye as you offer them a box of food.
It is simpler to stay behind the counter and poor soup into bowls at the soup kitchen than to go out to the people, to talk to them, to risk the awkward silence, the misunderstood gesture, the “offensive” odor of their clothes or breath.
It’s easier to collect socks and blankets and drop them off at the shelters than it is to brave the cold to bring lunches and conversation to the people living under the Birmingham Bridge.

It’s simpler to maintain your close relationships with a few friends, never reaching out to someone who may have a different perspective on life than you.

And this is not to say that writing check and serving food and collecting socks and maintaining friendships aren’t important - all of that is.
But I think we are being called to think in “Mary currency.” To think in “prophetic currency.” 

What would a “prophetic ministry” that uses “Mary currency” look like?

Mary currency is a currency of vulnerability and heart.  It’s a terrifying currency. An extravagant currency.  A currency with unpredictable outcomes. A prophetic currency that involves our entire selves.  A currency that puts its trust in things that don’t make sense - that puts its trust in the soon-to-be dead feet of a Jewish peasant who proclaimed the coming of the Kingdom of God. 

Isn’t this the kind of currency we think in when we decide to get married, or have children, or quit our jobs to go back to school for a more fulfilling career? This currency involves terrifying risk, terrifying trust. Imagine if I gave up on life, or if I didn’t have my child because it “costs too much.” Life, real life, always costs too much.

But we do these things because they are an offering of who we are. We do them because we know it’s worth the risk, even if it fails.  We do them because it is a true expression of who God made us to be.  It’s an offering of our whole selves, our whole lives, and an offering that commits itself to the hope that no matter what death may come from it, new life will spring out of it.
Isn’t this the kind of currency we think in when we choose to live a life of faith - a faith in a God we can’t seem to see or touch or directly experience in an absolute way? 

It’s the kind of currency that says it’s not about “fixing” the poor or solving a problem, or squirreling money away in a rainy day fund, but a currency that gives its whole self to the one who served, identified with, and ultimately gave his life to the poor. It is prophetic currency that trusts in a Jewish peasant with a questionable background whose death would somehow, strangely, paradoxically, give us new life.  This is a currency that fills the entire room with the beauty of its fragrance.  It’s a currency that is potent and intoxicating and a little bit scandalous.

For this prophetic, Mary currency and the courage to use it, we say, 
Thanks be to God.

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